National News

Unusual Move by First Lady, More Bluster by Her Husband

Posted June 21, 2018 9:17 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 11:18 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appeared to take his battle with the news media to a new level Thursday, apparently using the first lady’s much-covered visit with detained immigrant children in a Texas border town as an opportunity to spell out his grievances with the press.

As the temperature climbed to 80 degrees Thursday at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, Melania Trump boarded her plane wearing an olive green coat that read, in white capital letters, “I REALLY DON’T CARE. Do U?”

The first lady did not wear it while visiting with the children, but she did wear it upon her return to the capital, in full view of the news photographers who had gathered to capture her arrival. As the images were beamed around the world, the message was also in full view of her husband, a vociferous viewer of cable news.

“'I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?’ written on the back of Melania’s jacket, refers to the Fake News Media,” the president wrote on Twitter. “Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”

The first lady’s office did not back up the president’s explanation. Melania Trump's spokeswoman said it was “just a jacket” — nothing to see here.

For the second time since her husband took office — and the second time on a trip to Texas — Melania Trump had made an unusual choice. It was a move reminiscent of her decision last year to wear stilettos to a hurricane relief zone, which was also the subject of much deliberation about her fashion decisions.

One common reaction to the jacket was bafflement: What was she thinking? No, really, what was she thinking? Melania Trump is a former model with a keen understanding of her own image. She rarely makes an accidental fashion choice.

“Fashion is not by accident with this woman,” Bob Phibbs, chief executive of the Retail Doctor, a consultancy in New York, said in an interview. “She’s all about image, and so is Trump. She knows the power.”

When asked about the garment — a $39 jacket from the fast-fashion brand Zara’s 2016 collection — Melania Trump's office quickly responded.

“It’s a jacket,” the first lady’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, said Thursday in a statement to reporters. “There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope this isn’t what the media is going to choose to focus on.” Grisham followed up her statement with a tweet that reinforced what the East Wing said was an nonissue: “#ItsJustAJacket.” Asked whether her own explanation or the president’s was the truth, Grisham did not immediately respond.

The first lady’s appearance, which was kept secret until she touched down in Texas, came as the Trump administration, facing questions over the well-being and whereabouts of thousands of children, sought to put a more humane lens on its policies.

What it ultimately got was a distraction from them: On Thursday, the Pentagon was assessing how — and where — to house as many as 20,000 immigrants on military bases.

During Melania Trump's 75-minute visit to the Upbring New Hope Children’s Shelter in McAllen, Texas, she met with dozens of children as well as the people who are educating them and supervising their care. She asked officials questions about children’s well-being. She told the children to value friendship over all else.

“Good luck,” the first lady told them. The children applauded her as she left.

It was a striking re-emergence for Melania Trump, who underwent a procedure in May to treat a benign kidney condition and spent several weeks out of the public eye. Her trip on Thursday was a headfirst dive into the roiling debate over the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to immigration hours after her husband declared “we’ll send them the hell back” at a campaign rally. She is the first member of the Trump family to visit the border with Mexico since a national debate broke out over the administration’s separation policy. The outcry led the president to reverse course under political pressure and sign an executive order Wednesday to end the policy. More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents, and thousands of families are likely to remain fractured.

“I’m here to learn about your facility,” Melania Trump told a group of officials at the center. She added that she wanted to offer “help to these children to reunite with their families as quickly as possible.”

She interacted with dozens of the center’s 55 children, visiting three classrooms, according to a small group of reporters who accompanied her on the trip.

The first lady, who recently started Be Best, a platform centered around the betterment of children’s lives, asked her aides to organize the trip after seeing photographs and video of separated families, and hearing audio of children crying in the centers, Grisham said.

“She’s seen the images,” Grisham told reporters. “She’s heard the recordings. She was on top of the situation before any of that came out. She was concerned about it.”

Melania Trump, who traveled to Texas with Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, was also scheduled to visit the Ursula Border Patrol Processing Center, which had became a particular subject of scrutiny this week after a government video emerged showing families sitting in cages clutching mylar blankets. But her visit had to be cut short because of bad weather.

A senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity, told reporters on the first lady’s plane that only six of the New Hope facility’s 55 children had been separated from their parents, and the rest arrived as unaccompanied minors. At the facility, officials told the first lady that the separated children could speak to their parents twice a week. Melania Trump also asked about the condition of the children when they arrived: “So when the children come here, what kind of stage, you know, physical and the mental stage” are they in when “they come here?”

She was told by an official that children often arrive distraught, but soon settle in. “It’s a process, yes,” she replied. “But I’ve heard they’re very happy. They love to study. They love to go school.”

In recent days, according to her office, Melania Trump was upset by news reports about families being separated at the border and helped persuade the president to take action to stop it. Amid the din of voices who tried to persuade him to change his mind — including members of Congress and his oldest daughter — the first lady’s concern seemed to stand out.

“My wife feels very strongly about it,” Donald Trump said as he signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the separations. But the president, who faced a growing outcry from the public and from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, did not say whether her urging had swayed his decision.

In any case, Melania Trump had planned the trip before the president signed the order: “I don’t know what she knew” about the timing, Grisham said. “She knew what she wanted to do, and she told us.”

Grisham also emphasized that the first lady had her own opinions and would share them with the world — and with her husband — when warranted.